French Idiomatic Expressions with 'Mal'

Anxious mixed race woman sitting at table
JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

The French word mal means "badly" or "wrong" and is used in many idiomatic expressions. Learn how to say headache, seasickness, work hard, and more with idiomatic expressions using mal

Mal is often confused with mauvais because they both have negative meanings and can be adjectives, adverbs, or nouns. Here are a few pointers.

Mal is usually an adverb meaning poorlybadlyimproperly, etc. It can also be used in front of a past participle in order to give that verb a negative meaning. 

Mauvais, in the rare instances where it is used as an adverb, means bad.

Mauvais is usually an adjective that modifies a noun and means badmeanwrong, and the like. Mal, when used as an adjective, means bad, ill-at-ease, immoral, and the like, and can only be used as an adjective with copular (state-of-being) verbs such as être (to be) and se sentir (to feel).

Don't mix up mal and mauvais with bon and bien either. It's easy to do because the two pairs have similar meanings, but bon and bien are positive, while mal and mauvais are negative.

Common French Expressions with 'Mal'

  • Aux grands maux les grands remèdes.
    Big problems require big solutions.
  • avoir du mal à faire quelque chose
    to have a hard time doing something
  • avoir mal à la tête, aux dents
    to have a headache, toothache
  • avoir un mal de tête, de dents
    to have a headache, toothache
  • avoir le mal de mer
    to be seasick
  • avoir le mal du pays
    to be homesick
  • le bien et le mal
    good and evil
  • bon gré mal gré
    (whether you) like it or not
  • c'est mal vu
    people don't like that
  • de mal en pis
    from bad to worse
  • être bien mal
    to be close to death
  • être mal avec quelqu'un
    to be on bad terms with someone
  • faire mal à quelqu'un
    to do harm to someone
  • Honi soit qui mal y pense
    Shame on anyone who thinks evil of it. / This person has hidden evil intentions.
  • mal du siècle
    world-weariness
  • ne voir aucun mal à quelque chose
    to see no harm in something
  • non sans mal
    not without difficulty
  • on n'a rien sans mal
    you can't get something for nothing
  • pas mal
    not bad
  • pas mal (de)
    quite a lot (of)
  • prendre la chose mal
    to take it badly
  • rendre le bien pour le mal
    to return good for evil
  • se faire mal / Je me suis fait mal au pied.
    to hurt oneself / I hurt my foot.
  • se donner du mal
    to work hard
  • se donne un mal de chien à faire
    to bend over backwards to do
  • s'y prendre mal
    to do a bad job; to handle something badly